In the Byzantine tradition, there are several Saturdays during Lent in which the deceased are commemorated and specially prayed for (something akin to All Souls’ Day in the Latin tradition). The common Gospel reading for the deceased is John 5:24-30. I’ll give the key verses here: “Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
In only one of the verses above is Jesus actually talking about bodily death; the others talk about spiritual death. That is not hard to see: one who hears his word and believes has already passed from death to life, and this can only mean spiritual death, for there are many who hear and believe and have not yet endured bodily death. Twice Jesus speaks of an hour that is coming, but the first time he adds, “and now is,” meaning of course that He is talking of the present time, or at least of a moment imminently to arrive. The “dead” will hear his voice, and those who hear will live, that is, will enter the life of grace and communion with Him which is called “eternal life,” and which begins even before bodily death. The second time He speaks of a coming hour that clearly has not yet come, for he makes it clear here that the dead are “those in the tombs” who will rise at the general resurrection, the quality of whose lives will determine their permanent destination.
William Barclay is a rather well-known Bible commentator, though I don’t like him all that much—too many errors in his commentaries. But sometimes he gets it right. One of the monks here recently used his commentary in preaching on spiritual death. I think that Barclay has a few good insights here, so I’ll share them with you.
“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped trying. It is to have come to look on all faults and ineradicable and all virtues and unattainable. But the Christian life cannot stand still; it must either go on or slip back; and to stop trying is therefore to slip back into death.
“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped feeling. There are many people who at one time felt intensely in the face of sin and the sorrow and the suffering of the world; but slowly they have become insensitive. They can look at evil and feel no indignation; they can look at sorrow and suffering and feel no answering sword of grief and pity pierce their heart. When compassion goes, the heart is dead.
“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped thinking… When a man’s mind becomes so shut that it can accept no new truth, he is mentally and spiritually dead. The day when the desire to learn leaves us, the day when new truth, new methods, new thought simply become a disturbance with which we cannot be bothered, is the day of our spiritual death.
“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped repenting. The day when a man can sin in peace is the day of his spiritual death; and it is easy to slip into that frame of mind. The first time we do a wrong thing, we do it with fear and regret. If we do it a second time, it is easier to do it. If we do it a third time, it is easier yet. If we go on doing it, the time comes when we scarcely give it a thought. To avoid spiritual death a man must keep himself sensitive to sin by keeping himself sensitive to the presence of Jesus Christ.”
That’s a little something to reflect upon during Lent. We pray for the dead, but we need to pray for the spiritually dead as well, and to make every effort that we do not ourselves gradually enter their moribund ranks. Christianity is about the abundant life made available to us by divine grace, but it is up to us to hear the voice of the Son of God and believe in the Father who sent Him. Thus we will not only “pass from [spiritual] death to life,” we will at length rise to the everlasting resurrection of life!